Yōkai in Tōhō Project: Monsters, Modernization, and the Death of Japanese Spirituality
Arts and Sciences
East Asian Studies, Folklore Studies
The use of yōkai (妖怪, the ghosts and monsters of Japanese folklore) in Touhou Project (東方Project) represents a way to talk about the death of Japanese spirituality, the role of the West in Japanese culture, and the place of tradition in modern society. In some sense, this is nothing new. From the folklore of the Kamakura period, to Edo period wood-block prints, to modern franchises like Pokemon, yōkai are a persistent part of Japanese popular culture. More than just a form of entertainment, yōkai are often used to make religious, social, or political statements. This can be seen Edo period art, where monsters were used as a way to criticize government officials and the rigid, Neo-Confucian social structure while avoiding censorship, and in the used of oni in early-mid 20th century propaganda to justify the second world war.
Touhou Project is a modern (1998-present) collection of games, manga, short stories, music created by Ōta Jun'ya, more commonly known as ZUN or Team Shanghai Alice. The stories largely take place in the present day (or future, an unspecified number of decades from now) in Gensoukyou (幻想郷, roughly meaning “land of illusions”), a village in Japan that was sealed off from the outside world during the Meiji period by yōkai fearing the decline in belief in their existence. The author uses this setting to talk about where he thinks Japanese society is, and where it’s going. The setting and the ideas it grapples with are heavily rooted in the Meiji period, was a time of negotiating the fusion of Eastern and Western culture and the extent of the role that traditional beliefs and ideas could play in a modernized society. Like many before him, ZUN uses yōkai as tools to talk about these issues.
Torgerson, Lukas, "Yōkai in Tōhō Project: Monsters, Modernization, and the Death of Japanese Spirituality" (2021). Symposium on Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression (SOURCE). 967.